EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another in a series of articles about mental health. With recent suicides by teenagers on the Waccamaw Neck, many people are working to find ways to help remove the stigma about mental health. Treated in time, suicides can be prevented.
Chief Mike Fanning was first on the scene back in the Spring when a Waccamaw High School student committed suicide.
The Pawleys Island Police Department deals mostly with parking tickets, some breaking and entering calls and sometimes a swimmer in distress.
But on that day in the middle of May, Fanning was heading home. He lives in a neighborhood in mainland Pawleys Island and heard the emergency dispatcher call. The young man who took his own life lived not too far from Fanning’s home, so he responded to the call.
And sadly, this isn’t the first call for the Chief to such a tragic scene.
‘Four or five years ago, a 16-year-old shot himself on Petigru,” Fanning told the Georgetown Times / South Strand News. “I helped Midway (Fire Rescue) get him out of the bathtub and put him in the ambulance.”
“It’s hard to see young people make such a final decision.”
During a somber conversation, Fanning recalled the May death.
“The kid had locked himself in the car with a shotgun. His brother had heard the shot,” and called 911.
“I heard it on the way home,” Fanning said. He was the first person to arrive at the home.
“I had to break the window of the car,” the Pawleys Chief of Police said.
“He was still alive. We got him to the ambulance. He lived a couple of days. They were able to harvest his organs.”
“Nine people benefited from organ transplants,” Fanning said.
During his more than 30 years in law enforcement, Fanning has seen a lot.
He spent 20 years in New York City with the police department. His first eight years were with the Transit Police.
During his years with the New York Police Department, he had to deal with “numerous suicides.”
People would “jump in front of the trains or from a building,” Fanning said.
“As a law enforcement officer, you have to deal with tragedy. I’ve been doing it for 33 years.”
Like many first responders, Fanning has learned to help families dealing with loss.
“Teens are difficult,” he said, “but to me personally, it’s no more than perhaps a drowning.”
“You help the family deal with losing a loved one, especially a young person.”
“Emotionally, you have to be able to guide them through the process,” Fanning said.
The family realizes they are gone.
“In such a small community as this, it’s more personal, whereas in New York City – they’re dead. Move on and do your report.”
During his career with the NYPD, Fanning was a detective for a number of years. He had special training in dealing with death, and with death by suicide.
The 80-hour training dealt with emergencies and psychological training. The police officers did role playing, learning how to talk people down from manic depression and stress. “You would talk them down to a more reasonable place. ‘Let’s give it one more try’,” would often be a technique to use, “if we can.”
In South Carolina, Fanning said, “three individuals I’ve been involved with here have involved guns.”
“If someone is standing on a ledge of a building, you can allow yourself time for people to help you,” Fanning said. “With a gun, in a moment of haste, it does not bode well.”
After suicide, or an attempt
As mentioned in a previous article, suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people from the ages of 14 to 24. Along with death by suicide, there are many others who attempt suicide.
“You try to reinforce that we tried to do everything we could to save their loved one,” Fanning said.
“In New York, it was kind of matter-of-fact, and you move on.”
“Here, you try to deal with them. Tell them you did everything you could. Listen to their concerns, and their emotions.”
“Help them understand this was an extreme decision, and it probably was not what they wanted to do.”
It’s important to help the family deal with the next stage, such as who to call. Some of the people aren’t from here. Logistical issues need to be handled.
“The coroner’s office is very good in helping deal with these,” Fanning said.
He also noted that the victim advocate with the Sheriff’s Office is trained. Law enforcement personnel will bring them in, especially when children are involved, he said.
The process is a team effort, investigating the incident and talking with witnesses.
Those steps need to be taken to determine whether the person “was suicidal and not something more nefarious.”
In talking with young people, Fanning said, it would be important to tell them in an informal setting that the problem they’re facing “isn’t the end of the world. Help is out there.”
As for the two recent suicides on the Waccamaw Neck, Fanning said, both young people were Eagle Scouts. “It’s hard to say where they were.”
“The whole community is struggling with it, how to deal with it.”
If he was talking with kids, Fanning said, he would tell them they’re not alone.
“You can only imagine what’s going through their minds, the pressures they face.’
“Despite all the pressures they have on them, it will get better. People love them and care for them. People are willing to listen.”
Talking to parents
For parents of young people, Fanning said, it’s probably a little more difficult. There are not always signs of someone in that depth of despair.”
“Be cognizant of what they’re going through.”
“Dinner conversations are helpful,” Fanning said. “Listen to what the kids are saying.”
“As parents within the community, we shouldn’t be afraid to say to other parents, ‘Johnny said this ….’ Or, “He posted on Facebook – you might want to take a look at it.’”
“I’ve had people throughout my career tell me, ‘Thanks for listening,’ and I didn’t even know I’d helped in a dire situation.”
As mentioned in previous articles, there are numerous resources available to get help.
• NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.
Redwine said this organization was started by some moms who were concerned about mental health.
• Waccamaw Center for Mental Health is the local office of the S.C. Department of Mental Health. It has offices in Georgetown, Conway, Myrtle Beach and Kingstree.
• Psychology Today is a magazine. The company also has a Web site that offers a lot of information about mental health. There is a look-up feature for therapists. You may search by name or by geographic location.
• Kathy Redwine is a Licensed Professional Counselor who has talked with the Georgetown Times / South Strand News about mental health issues. She has an office in Pawleys Island and sees clients also at Riverside Pediatrics in Georgetown. Her phone number is (843) 274-7604.